One of the first major bills signed by George Washington called for ‘the encouragement and protection of manufacturing’ in America.
Our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned us by saying: ‘The abandonment of the protective policy by the American government will produce want and ruin among our people.’
Trump rarely ever quotes historical figures, and the last time he tried to talk up Abraham Lincoln, it didn’t go so well. His campaign staff should get some brownie points for effectively tapping into American history to make a fairly solid point: In the first century of U.S. history, our economic system was heavily protectionist.
That being said, this was a disingenuous historical reference. The protectionist policies of the early 19th century existed in a global economy totally different from the one we have today.
Trump, of course, was referring to protective tariffs passed by Congress throughout the first couple of decades in American history. The first line in the excerpt above refers to the Tariff of 1789, steered through Congress by James Madison and signed by George Washington. The second refers to a statement Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1847 just before he became a member of Congress (Lincoln’s original sentence was a bit wordier, but the quote Trump used was actually a version edited down by Theodore Roosevelt).
There’s no doubt that both Washington and Lincoln — as well as many of the nation’s founders — were openly in favor of protective tariffs on imported goods. But it’s important to note that at the time, tariffs were by far the biggest source of revenue for the federal government (federal income taxes didn’t come around fully until 1913). To be in favor of tariffs back then essentially meant to be pro-government revenue. Indeed, the tariff passed under Washington was introduced largely as a method to pay off the debts from the war against England.
Of course, there were plenty of politicians during the founding of the country — including Alexander Hamilton — who explicitly supported tariffs to protect jobs and “infant industries” from foreign commerce. But this was largely a regional question. In the North, economies relied heavily on manufacturing. Southerners, on the other hand, viewed tariffs as a threat to their own agricultural economy that relied heavily on trade with Britain — specifically cotton.
Still, the question was never whether the country should have tariffs or not have tariffs, as the government couldn’t function without them. Instead, political debate was about how high the tariffs should be.
Lincoln, for his part, was an ardent supporter of protectionism. During his first speech on the topic, he said: “When an American paid 20 dollars for steel to an English manufacturer, America had the steel and England had the 20 dollars. But when he paid 20 dollars for steel to an American manufacturer, America had both the steel and the 20 dollars.”
But of course, international trade back then wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. Meanwhile, economic growth throughout the 19th century was boosted by expansions of transportation, infrastructure, agriculture and resource mining as the United States marched westward across the continent. A steady influx of immigrants meant there was an abundance of cheap labor. For the average American, foreign trade simply wasn’t a pressing issue.
Today, trade is a totally different story. Regardless of the benefits or consequences of free trade, it’s undeniable that trade agreements now play a crucial role in international politics. How the United States and China interact with each other depends on how we trade with each other — and Lincoln certainly never had to face such pressure during his presidential tenure.
But wasn’t the purpose of using Lincoln’s quote to underscore the principle of what he was saying? Sure. But under that logic, you could also argue that Lincoln and Trump disagree on immigration because the former warmly welcomed immigrants while the latter does not.
My point is this: Historical context matters. You can’t just take sentences from 150 years ago and insert them however you want into contemporary politics.